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Talking With Acclaimed Israeli Director Oren Moverman

Despite his own remarkable success, Israeli filmmaker Oren Moverman says the future of indie film is bleak

Amir Bogen
August 22, 2018
Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Director screenwriter Oren Moverman attends 'The Dinner' press conference during the 67th Berlin International Film Festival.Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Director screenwriter Oren Moverman attends 'The Dinner' press conference during the 67th Berlin International Film Festival.Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

These are gloomy times for indie cinema, almost as depressing as the films themselves. TV keeps people in their homes and Netflix is hijacking the movie industry with its in-house production for streaming only. And while struggling Hollywood is still looking for redemption overseas, the American indie film industry is left to crumble in dark empty screening rooms. Who will be the last person to turn off the light, or rather turn it on? It might well be Oren Moverman, a rare success story in these dark times.

“A crisis is always a great time because while people get hurt, there is a potential to all kinds of changes that are positive,” Moverman told Tablet in an exclusive interview.

Since leaving Israel three decades ago, Moverman, 52, settled in New York and started a career as a screenwriter. His acclaimed directorial debut The Messenger (2009) was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. Nine years and three movies (RampartTime Out of Mind and The Dinner) later, Moverman is still doing acclaimed writing while developing scripts for himself and others, and recently added producer to his resume. This year he came to a very slow Sundance Film Festival with four projects and managed to sell them all: The Tale by Jennifer Fox was picked up by HBO and gained Emmys nominations; Wildlife by Paul Dano is considered Oscar material. Marc Turtletaub’s Puzzle that Moverman wrote a script for (with Polly Mann) is distributed by powerhouse Sony Pictures Classic and doing well in the box-office these days, while politically charged Monsters and Men by Reynaldo Marcus Green will be out in theaters in September. Moverman also led the production of Kent Jones’ Diane that won three awards in the Tribeca Film Festival and he supported Israeli director Guy Nattiv with his American debut Skin that will premiere next month in Toronto Film Festival.

“It’s overwhelming and it fills me with gratitude and it shocks me,” Moverman admits. While his talent and track record as a filmmaker is undeniable, Moverman, who is now a part of company (Sight Unseen Pictures) had to switch to more a practical filmmaking, engaging other people, giving them attention, keeping the communication flowing, and the cash as well.

“What I’m doing now is working with writers and directors developing their scripts and getting them made,” Moverman says.

“I like the fact that I like every single director I work with. Some of them are friends so it’s a lot easier that way than working for a machine where I’m anonymous and cold. This is a very warm environment. The exercise here is to get out of your own head and out of your own endeavors, work in service of something else, other people. It’s very good for the ego, very good for the practical part of the brain.”

Despite his remarkable successes, Moverman sees the end of American indie film looming. “I think independent film is fighting for its life. It’s fighting for its existence. It’s as existential as it can get right now. There are ways to make movies made, that’s not really the problem. The problem is how you make the movies seen. The big question is how to get people to go to the theater, and whatever the answer is, we are losing this battle.”

Curious, I asked him how he attracts investors to back his movies when the future looks so bleak.

“That’s the real problem. If I come to you as a financier, you might say it’s good writing and you like it, but who’s going to see it? How do you get it out? Who’s buying it? If you look at the field of indie distributors, it’s a shrinking world. It’s really really hard to get a movie seen. So you might say let’s see if I can get it to Netflix or Amazon and that’s a different adventure. I think people are becoming more conservative, people are becoming more worried.”

Moverman keeps navigating through this troubled water quietly, carefully, with modesty and awareness, all the characteristics Harvey Weinstein lacked. Even before the allegations of sexual abuse broke out, the man who was considered the king of indie films failed to adapt and saw his business falling apart.

“Even before all these horrifying things started to emerge, it was part of the shifting landscape anyway,” says Moverman, “From the business point of view, it’s a different time and it’s not the time of behemoths like Miramax or The Weinstein Company. It’s a different time when you have to be more nimble and stealth and has to find a way to get these movies seen without having major players out there wanting it. Everyone has his moment, and this is why I try to recognize when is the time to get out and how the decline looks like.”

In the post-Weinstein era, we see more women filmmakers leading productions, and more actresses starring in female character driven stories. This shift is clearly noticeable in Moverman’s work as well. “Things are changing pretty quickly and not necessarily for the long run, and we have to make sure they are for the long run so it will become an establish natural fact,” Moverman points out and reveals his personal connection to women as a result of his upbringing in Israel.

“The films I directed tend to be about men, they tend to be about masculinity in its various forms. I guess my fascination with men stories is because I grew up with only women around. Sisters, grandmothers, my mom, aunt. I didn’t really have a strong male influence on me, as sad as that may sound. My father was a hard working man that was never around. So I felt comfortable in that world and been raised the way they wanted me to.”

Moverman was born in July 1966 in Israel and spent his childhood in the city of Givatayim, close to Tel Aviv. When he was 13, his family relocated to New York where he attended Ramaz Yeshiva in Manhattan. At the age of 17, he went back to Israel to serve in the IDF as a paratrooper in the Nahal Brigade. After his service, Moverman came back to New York to study cinema and stayed there ever since. While he wouldn’t consider living in Israel, he admits the nation lives deep within him, shaping his identity and impacting his creation. 

“I’m first and foremost an Israeli, this is who I am even though I lived most of my life out of Israel. It’s not part of my life that I ever tried to erase or to deny. It’s something I struggle with because we all struggle with the multiple challenges our identity gives us. I think we are all a product of our childhood and our DNA. So my childhood and my DNA are directly connected to the land of Israel. But I’ve always felt like an outsider in my life, even when I lived in Israel. As a kid I never felt I belong,” he says. “I never felt I needed my Israeli identity to be expressed overtly while, indirectly or underneath, it’s all in my perspective. I think it’s there, embedded, it’s very strong and it served me well. I’m an Israeli-American, these are two parts of my identity and I live with it. I live here, I work here, I’m fascinated by this place and I do have an immigrant’s perspective on it.”

Recently Moverman did start working with Israeli filmmakers, taking them under his wings and helping them fulfill their American dreams. Joseph Cedar’s Norman starring Gere and Lior Ashkenazi; Ido Fluk’s The Ticket with Dan Stevens, and the controversial Israeli Arab rap movie Junction 48 by Udi Aloni–all were produced by him, as well as Nattiv’s Skin (starring Jamie Bell, Danielle MacDonald, Vera Farmiga and Mike Colter) about the real story of a reformed white-supremacist erasing the Nazi tattoos on his skin and the hate bubbling beneath it.

“It’s a big mistake,” jokes Moverman when asked about this Israeli new wave of his career, “It was probably in the works and I wasn’t aware of it. I didn’t work with Israelis In a long time. There was no opportunity. Something brought me back to that engagement. I also realized that the Israelis that I know now, most of them live here, are Israelis that I wouldn’t have known if I’d continued my life in Israel because it’s a very different background. And this is the background that I wanted. I wanted these kinds of conversations. I came from a place that had no connection to creative thinking or academia. I think I was drawn to it on a personal level. We do share the same experiences, we do come from the same place. I guess I found more Israelis that I can have conversations with and that led to the work.”

Moverman is not afraid to talk politics—Israeli and American–but it seems that his best statements come through films that he writes, directs or produces. He dealt with socio-political issues such as Homelessness in Time Out of Mind, the relationships between American and Israeli politicians in Norman or Palestinian youth lives under the Jewish state in Junction 48. Soon we could see Monsters and Men and its take on police brutality and Skin that dives into hate cultures. “Whatever the films are, they are connected to the real world. I guess I’ve never been involved in pure entertainment,” says Moverman.

“I worked on so many kinds of scripts and way outside my culture, probably more than inside my culture, and I read African-American scripts, Asian scripts, Queer scripts. I worked on musicals, action films. I can’t remember what I’ve worked on. I can’t completely categories what I do. I write in different styles, I don’t have a signature style, though I do have a tendency to do nonlinear things, but that’s not even consistent. This lack of consistency is the most consistent thing about me.”

However, you don’t work with Hollywood’s big studios at all.

“Yeah, I don’t think Disney will be calling me any time soon. I’ve done some re-writes and stuff like that on bigger films without using my name. If I was interested we wouldn’t be here today, I’d be in Los Angeles. There were a few times that I was talking to my agents and they said we think you should try and do this one and so. All I said to them is give me a pay-or-play deal because when they’ll fire me I still want to get paid because they will fire me. I need a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and I like the level I work at, I’m not looking for bigger toys or bigger machines and I’m definitely not looking to spend more money on these products that I ultimately don’t watch.”

While Hollywood doesn’t really attract him, some of its biggest movie stars do tend to join him on his indie adventures, however small and modest they are. Some have been creative partners, and some he considers friends. In an industry, where films don’t get a green light without some name dropping, Moverman proved that he can attach stars on regular basis. “Ever since things started happening in terms of having films made, I had good luck with actors,” he admits and mentions that after his first feature fell apart three days before shooting, it was none other than Steve Buscemi who offered him an opportunity as a hired screenwriter based on that failed script.

Even though he had his share of failures over his long career, Moverman takes an almost stoic approach when it comes to projects. “What’s the worst that can happen? You try to do well by everyone and then you see what happens. This is not the business to go into if you want a sure thing. It’s all risks all the time. So it’s a question of how comfortable you are with risk, yours and other people.”

You still have life goals you dream of achieving?

“I don’t ever want to arrive at a place where I’m done artistically. I will arrive at a place where I’m done because we all will. But I want to arrive at the end of my life knowing that I meant something to my kids and that we had something meaningful that they can carry on. Maybe I’m talking from a place of privilege, there is so much to do in this business. I know that I wanted to be a filmmaker–that was an ambition. When I got to the states 30 years ago I was hungry, not just physically but hungry for knowledge, hungry for creativity, hungry for creative people, so I really followed that hunger. But if I look back, the ambition was not the achievement, the ambition was the engagement. It’s hard to do, but I try not to live by comparison. I try not to judge myself based on other people’s achievements and I think as you get older it becomes possible.”

Amir Bogen is a film journalist.